Food: A Little Taste of Lisbon (or is it Genoa?) in Claremont

I had driven by Euro Café at least two dozen times en route to Vons for groceries before noticing that it was more than just another strip mall eatery. The café is in an isolated location off of Mills Avenue, just before Baseline Road. If you’re going to Vons from any of the campuses, you will drive right by Euro Café. In addition to its hidden locale, the name “Euro Café” conjures images of what one of the dining halls would call one of its exhibition stations: Monday is Spain with paella, Tuesday is Greece with Greek salad, etc.

Euro Café does not serve cuisine from all of Europe but could best be described as about 25 percent Portuguese, 50 percent Italian, and 25 percent typical American café breakfast and lunch standards. The Portuguese quarter is the most unique influence and the reason I decided that Euro Café urgently required a visit. My only previous experience with Portuguese cuisine had been at a brand-new spot in Pittsburgh eight years ago that was so bad I vowed to never again eat at a restaurant less than a year old.

When you arrive at the café, you won’t feel swept off your feet and transported to Europe, but you’ll at least not think that the 210 freeway is right next door to you. The butterscotch-colored walls with ledges holding various rustic knick knacks are warm and wholesome, and the glassed-in room that weaves away from the ordering counter has traditional Starbucks-like tables and a long, winding bar for browsing newspapers. The outside café seats are highly coveted for the parking lot view… so we’re not in Lisboa after all. Though the room may feel more American than European, the staff certainly gives more of a European vibe. They are professional, laid-back and very rarely smile, but they aren’t harsh in any way. Even the European tradition of going on holiday seemed to translate: I came early one Saturday for the daily special of malasadas, Portuguese doughnuts, but alas, the owner had just gotten back from vacation and didn’t feel like making any.

Ratings:

Euro Café:546 E. Baseline Road (off of Mills Avenue in Von’s Shopping Center), Claremont(909) 621-4666

Hours: Dinner Tuesday – Sunday, 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.; Monday – Friday, 7 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.; Saturday, 8 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.; Sunday, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Breakfast served Monday – Saturday until 11:30 a.m.; Sunday, all dayPrices: Entrees, $5.64 – $8.95; Paninis, $6.95; Desserts, up to $2.85

Overall: ***

Restaurants with table service are rated with a grade from 0 to 4 stars on food, service, and atmosphere, along with an overall star rating. Restaurants without table service receive only one overall rating and are assessed with more of an emphasis on their overall value. All overall ratings take into account a restaurant’s prices.

4 stars: Extraordinary3 stars: Outstanding, very reliable, perhaps 1 area to improve slightly2 stars: Good but several flaws1 star: Avoidable, I probably did not get food poisoning at least0 stars: Should be closed/dangerous to a diner’s sanity and health

Each day brings a different Portuguese special, along with a top sirloin marinated in white wine, served with peppers and topped with a fried egg. Though none of the specials will cause you to book immediately a ticket to Lisboa for more of its cuisine, it is these specials that carve Euro Café a unique niche in the Claremont dining landscape. On Tuesday, there is roast salmon and on Thursday, the rich signature Portuguese bean stew Feijoada, filled with linguica sausage, onions, carrots, pork, and cabbage. The stew made the trek across the Atlantic and is now known as one of Brazil’s most famous dishes. Fridays summon the Bacalhau de Natas, a crispy cod-and-potato cake-like concoction that leans too much toward potatoes. It is enjoyable but overpriced at $11.99 for a dish tasting too much like fishsticks.

Other than the specials, there is nothing Portuguese about the menu. The numerous panini choices will not surprise anybody. The homemade chorizo and “Euro-Dip” (known as French Dip to the rest of the world) are both very solid choices, while the Bifana (marinated pork loin) could satisfy the more adventuresome. Diners looking for the regular mundane lunch choices of turkey and pesto and grilled chicken will be satisfied as well. Salads and pastas round out the lunch menu, accompanied by some breakfast paninis, omelettes, and French toast made with the café’s terrific sweetbread.

My one major complaint, aside from the uninspiring Portuguese specials, is the side dishes that join the specials and paninis. The house salad is a few leaves of spring mix topped with a slice of a tomato. The chips my dining partner once ordered hoping they would compete with the terrific homemade ones at Heroes & Legends in the Village, turned out the be Lay’s potato chips. Couldn’t they at least be Sunchips or Cheetohs?

Euro Café couldn’t be a European café without a major beverage business. With its enormous espresso machine beside the ordering counter, the coffee crowd will be content. There is also an impressive list of smoothies, including fruit and other nutritious flavors like “peanut butter chocolate twist.”

Do not forget a fresh baked treat. All are good. The cranberry pumpkin walnut cookie is autumn at its finest, while the chocolate chip cookie could compete with the freshly baked delicacies at Scripps’ dining hall. Heck, even the lemon poppyseed muffin was good, and that is saying something for a flavor I always considered as plain as vanilla.

Though there is nothing groundbreaking in this quiet corner of Claremont, Euro Café can provide an enjoyable experience and a sort-of Portuguese, sort-of Italian, sort-of “Euro” experience to convince your mind that you are abroad. That doesn’t mean you’ll feel like you’re in Europe, but you’ll at least feel like you’re not just in the same parking lot as Vons.

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